The wonderful Jenna Whitfield, Nora Hendee, (3.5) & Rowan James, (9 months)
Coming from a large family herself, Jenna was certain that she too wanted to start her family young and have a lot of children. She was married young and says that the next five years proved a challenging period between navigating marriage, career, and personal growth. Eventually, she and her husband began to discuss not when but if they were going to start a family. “Though I ultimately believe those conversations stemmed from feeling disconnected from my husband in our marriage, I appreciate the role they played in allowing me to question my assumptions about being a woman, motherhood, parenting, and gender & society at large”.
Jenna’s now 4 year old daughter, Nora, was a surprise and other than a few food aversions and first trimester fatigue, she says the pregnancy was wonderfully uneventful and she really felt at home in her body and in awe of what was happening. In preparation for what she hoped would be a drug and intervention free labor and birth, they took the basic class offered at the hospital. She had an unspoken concern that she wouldn’t feel supported enough during labor, but didn’t push the idea of having a doula as her husband seemed offended. “I hoped he would be able to give me the support I needed, but our relationship was not at a point of great intimacy and connection at the time”.
Ultimately, she went into labor the morning after Nora’s due date, when the first contraction woke her at 5am. She labored throughout the day, evening and into the next morning when things became more difficult. "By mid-morning I was feeling exhausted and discouraged, as it felt the contractions were becoming more than I could handle. I alternated between leaning over the foot of the bed during the contractions, still only in my lower back, and standing and holding my breath in fear of the next one. I felt alone as I had been short with my husband during his previous attempts to help and had effectively shut him down since he felt he didn’t have anything to offer me". In the late afternoon they headed to the hospital, where she leaned she was only 4cm dilated and they told her that if she wanted to have a natural birth she should go back home. They left the hospital and filled a prescription she had been given for Ambien on the the way.
While sleep never came, labor continued to progress. Jenna woke her husband at 3am feeling completely overwhelmed and disoriented, unable to manage the continued back labor, so they headed back to the hospital. She was admitted at 6cms and the admitting nurse told her that if she couldn’t handle it, then the only other option was to get an epidural, which she hadn’t wanted. "What I wanted was for my partner to be right there with me every step of the way and I didn’t feel that. I looked to him for the answer to the epidural and he said he thought it was a good idea so I could get some rest. I got the epidural at 4am and fell asleep".
At exactly 7am she woke up fully as her water broke and nurses rushed to her side. The baby’s heart rate had fallen and they were trying to get it back up. Unsuccessful, she was wheeled into the OR for an emergency cesarean. She was prepped for surgery but just before they began the baby’s heart rate stabilized. The team chose to monitor the baby for 10 minutes in the OR and then sent her back to continue laboring. Jenna labored for another hour or so, pushed for about 3 hours, and finally gave birth to Nora at 11:39am. She was persistent in her posterior position and came into the world “Sunnyside up”. Nora was "perfect, alert and started to nurse soon after being placed on my chest. My partner and I did not talk about the labor until the next day in a conversation that amounted to, “Thank goodness you and Nora are both healthy.”
Recovery was difficult due to a large tear and exhaustion from multiple days of labor. Jenna had to start pumping at two weeks in order to return to school and this later proved problematic in producing a major over supply of breast milk. In addition to a fast let down, Nora started to refuse to nurse. Luckily, her doctor had assured her that most of these issues would resolve at three months as Nora was able to better handle the flow of her milk and they did. They nursed through cracked nipples, thrush, over supply, a biting phase, toddler nursing gymnastics, night weaning, and nursing aversion towards the end. "Though it was difficult at times it was one of the most intimate, complex, and amazing relationships I have ever experienced. I wanted Nora to self-wean and she did a few weeks after her second birthday."
In hindsight, Jenna says that her breastfeeding relationship helped her connect with Nora as postpartum depression, OCD, and PTSD from her birth set in at two weeks postpartum. "I became unable to fall asleep between nighttime feedings even though I was exhausted. I blamed myself for getting the epidural which confined me to the bed, convinced that if I had been up and moving around, Nora’s cord would not have become kinked, resulting in her (in my mind) almost death and c-section, and subsequently - me having PTSD. I loved her but was unable to feel happiness. After having intrusive thoughts about Nora, I replayed them over in my mind unable to believe that I could have such horrible thoughts. Furthermore, when I tried to speak to my husband about feeling alone, like my birth just “happened” to me, he felt hurt, assuming he had done something wrong. After having a massive crying jag one night, he realized I wasn’t just upset with him and the birth experience and that something was really wrong. He made an appointment for me where my OB unknowingly shamed me saying, “It’s hard, because it’s not about you anymore, isn’t it?” Luckily, the social worker she referred me to was amazing".
After listening to her share my story, this provider was the first one to say, “What you are feeling is justified.” The next 6 months of seeing her, helped Jenna recover and cope. After her husband began seeing a therapist as well, they found themselves in a much different place. "It took three years of individual and couples counseling to arrive at the place we are today, which is engaged, in love, and active in our partnership and parenting. Nora’s birth required us to address the cracks in our relationship and as individuals and was nothing less than transformative."
If Nora’s birth was transformative, then Jenna says that Rowan’s birth was restorative. Although they were thinking about having more children, Rowan was a bit of a surprise. This pregnancy was much more difficult as she navigated all day nausea for the next 20 weeks, lost 15 lbs and struggled to function. Once she began to feel better, the second half of her pregnancy went well. "Those weeks were truly the most beautiful in my life". They decided to take Bradley classes this time to prepare for the birth which allowed them to feel more like a team. She also chose to see her counselor again to unpack residual fears about her previous birth and make sure she had support in place for her 4th trimester.
Contractions came quickly this time and progressed smoothly. After laboring at home for a bit they headed to the hospital where she was admitted soon learning she was already 8cms. Jenna was able to get into the tub with her husband beside her. Her water broke shortly thereafter and she got out to labor on hands and knees. Three pushes and seven minutes later, her son was born after just 5 hours of labor. "I remember saying, “Oh baby it’s you. You’re here.” Over and over. I was euphoric and so in love with him the minute he arrived. I physically felt amazing and did not stop smiling for several days/maybe weeks. I was filled with such joy to have shared that experience with my husband as we welcomed our baby into the world. The postpartum period the second time was everything I could have hoped for. I felt so cared for, loved and able to bathe in the amazingness of newborn Rowan."
"A part of me was fearful I would have a daughter because of the difficulty in shielding and equipping her for a world that so openly tears down women and breaks them apart body part by body part. But now, in light of projects like 4th Trimester Bodies and the countless conversations I’ve had since then, I am hopeful. I am hopeful that Nora will see these pictures, feel our connection and be in awe of women’s bodies. I am hopeful that Rowan will know that bodies come in many varieties, many more than the media puts forth, and will be an advocate for women. I am hopeful that mental health will become destigmatized. I am hopeful, because as mother I desire for my children to live in a world where they can live with open, tender hearts and unafraid."